I Was a Teenage Guitar Hero

I don’t remember where I first heard about Guitar Hero. But, I had a subscription to GamePro when I was an elementary-age kid, so that was probably it. I had amassed a sum of christmas money (2005) and decided I was going to shell out the $70 odd dollars to get the bundle. Neither GameStop in town had it (they were EB Games then) and I ended up calling this independent shop in a neighboring town called Game Freaks. They had it.

I could probably name tons of songs from GH, GHII, and Rock Band. Those three games were my main rhythm-game squeezes, but it was something really special chugging through the Guitar Hero I setlist on Easy mode for the first time. It felt incredible. I didn’t touch the other games on my shelf over Christmas break. Even when I went downstate to visit my grandparents and spend a few nights there, I brought everything along and remember first playing on hard in the upstairs living room there. I was 10 or 11. I was playing Cochise by Audioslave, with the guitar behind my head. I don’t know who lives in that house anymore.

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My dad got into it with me a lot more when Guitar Hero II came out. We bought the bundle again, and I remember playing Strutter by Kiss. Of course, it was the WaveGroup Sound cover. In a way, that seems bizarre now that Guitar Hero I and II were nearly all the WaveGroup “As Made Famous By” covers. If I was older, that might have bugged the shit out of me, but I was a little kid, and I only half-knew the scant songs I recognized.

It’s been a long time, but I will occasionally hear a song and have false memories of it, basically because I was familiar with the Guitar Hero version only. I loved playing “Spanish Castle Magic” by Jimi Hendrix, and the first time I heard the original recording, the vocals arrested me. I had no idea that song was supposed to have words.

Embarrassing times were had by all. I remember much later in Middle School flipping through my friend Connor’s iPod on the bus home. He had about 70 artists and 71 songs. They were all recognizably from Guitar Hero. I was incredulous.

“Did you know about music before Guitar Hero? How is this possible?”

Any song on YouTube that was part of a tracklist in a rhythm game was immediately subject to a war in the comments, mostly instigated by people convinced that somebody who heard Frankenstein by the Edgar Winter Group on Guitar Hero and not through classic rock radio was somehow an asshole.

I think for people who were younger around the release of those games, they played a big part in shaping their musical landscape. Especially for kids like me, who didn’t listen to mainstream pop at the time. It was nice to find stuff that was new, or at least recent. Even as a pre-teen, listening to endless Led Zeppelin and the Doors felt like listening to music in a vacuum. I actually got deeply into several different bands featured in the Bonus Songs, most notably That Handsome Devil (who just put a new record out) and Honest Bob and the Factory-to-dealer Incentives. I was so into That Handsome Devil for some time I co-started a lyrics Wikia for them, and helped organize their show in Detroit when they played in Hamtramck. Some of the members knew me by name, and at some point during the night it was a shocking realization that oh, wow: I’m here because I played their song “Elephant Bones” in Guitar Hero II.

Rhythm games were it. Aside from Call of Duty, games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band were what I feel to be one of the last huge (recent) gaming phenomenons to come out of consoles. It’s worth mentioning the Just Dance games and the Wii, not as a console in this context, but as a Wii Sports machine. I played Just Dance with my cousin and sister-in-law at some holiday shindig this year, but that isn’t the same as going to someones house for the sole purpose of playing GH/RB and then playing it up until the sun starts poking around again.

Everybody had plastic instruments. I had two guitars from Guitar Hero, incompatible with my guitar, mic, and drum kit from my Rock Band set. I was not in any minority. I would even wager to say that tons of people probably had three or four guitars. God forbid you wanted to play the drums–it guaranteed you buying a newer kit.

With the speed that these games came and went, it sounds as if music games existed in a bubble, even though it wasn’t. It wasn’t like Rock Band 3 shipped and they had to bury a bunch of stuff in a landfill. The games sold. Guitar Hero World Tour sold. The Beatles Rock Band sold. The track packs and DLC sold. It gracefully went away. It was probably because consumers were so vocal about not wanting to buy any more instruments. It had to be obvious to developers/publishers that the market was slowing up.

To the greater public, rhythm gaming died down. There’s still an active community, or so says Nick Chester from Harmonix PR. Additionally, that article states some anecdotal interest in a new Rock Band title from consumers, but it can hardly be inferred from that article that RB4 (or anything similar) is on the way.

The fair-weather, casual gamers who played rhythm games moved on. A lot of the younger kids have moved onto the mobile frontier that has grown so large in years recent. The adults who weren’t gamers but played rhythm games have largely gone back to being not gamers. The gamers who played those games are still gamers. But they aren’t playing games with a plastic axe.

It’s been awhile since we’ve seen a music game like those of yore. Frankly, I’d be way into a new one. As a member of the now-current generation of gaming hardware, I would love to have a music game. If Harmonix announced a fat Rock Band 4 bundle tomorrow, I’d double down on that. Sure, I’d have to figure out where the hell I’m going to get the money/where the hell I’ll keep those fake instruments, but I would still love that. It’s surely not as pronounced, but I feel the urge to get a music game the same way I need a good fighting game on a new console, or a good game to wreck a car in.

I’ll never be that kid waking up to grab plastic instruments, and going to bed because I need to put them down. I’ll never spend hours and hours working my way up to Hard and Expert mode, partly because I can still whip through songs on Expert despite the rust around the joints of my fingers. I can never really be that dedicated again, because music games will never dominate my life again. They already did that once when I was a kid. Money can still be made. Improvements can still be made. Music games will never rule the world again, but they could still suck the money out of my wallet once in a while.

I could use some new rhythm games.

(As a side note, while I will continue to post here, I'm going to heed some advice I received from an editor at Kotaku and slowly move to posting solely on a blog of my own. I hope some of you will visit. Thanks for the read!)